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Rebecca L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 14, 2019

REBECCA L., [1]Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MUSTAFA T. KASUBHAI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rebecca L. brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On October 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI alleging disability as of December 18, 2014. Tr. 208-09, 210-15.[2] The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially, and upon reconsideration, after which Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 139-47, 156-57. The hearing was held on October 25, 2017 via video conference. Tr. 15. Plaintiff testified, as did an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 15. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued a decision on November 15, 2017 denying her claim. Tr. 12-24. On February 7, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-11. Plaintiff timely filed this complaint for review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). This Court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [this Court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         Disability Analysis

         The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The five-step sequential inquiry is summarized below, as described in Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098- 99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Step One: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is engaged in such activity is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under step two. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

         Step Two: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant has one or more severe impairments. A claimant who does not have any such impairment is not disabled. If the claimant has one or more severe impairment(s), the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under step three. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

         Step Three: Disability cannot be based solely on a severe impairment; therefore, the Commissioner next determines whether the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. A claimant who has an impairment that meets a listing is presumed disabled under the Act. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal an impairment in the listings, the Commissioner's evaluation of the claimant's case proceeds under step four. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         Step Four: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to perform work he or she has done in the past. A claimant who can perform past relevant work is not disabled. If the claimant demonstrates he or she cannot do past relevant work, the Commissioner's evaluation of claimant's case proceeds under step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1520(f), 416.920(e), 416.920(f).

         Step Five: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work. A claimant who cannot perform other work is disabled. If the Commissioner finds claimant is able to do other work, the Commissioner must show that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that claimant is able to do. The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. If the Commissioner demonstrates that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant is able to perform, the claimant is not disabled. If the Commissioner does not meet the burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

         At steps one through four of the sequential inquiry, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. If the claimant satisfies her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner regarding step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity in 2014 and part of 2015 but stopped this activity in the third quarter of 2015. Tr. 18. Nonetheless, Plaintiff did experience a twelve-month period during her claimed time of disability where she did not engage in substantial gainful activity, allowing for further analysis. Id.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: history of left shoulder bursitis/rotator cuff tear, status post 2014 surgical repair; complex regional pain syndrome involving the left upper extremity; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post September 2017 surgery; and mild-to-moderate bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's left knee problems, adjustment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) were not severe, medically determinable impairments. Tr. 19.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 19.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity allowed her to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Tr. 19. She can frequently reach overhead with the left upper extremity, frequently grip, twist or grasp with the left hand, and her right-hand gross manipulative capacity is not limited. Id. Because of chronic pain and medication side effects, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to simple routine, repetitive tasks and determined that she must avoid all exposure to workplace hazards. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a materials handler, production assembler, or caregiver. Tr. 22.

         At step five, the ALJ concluded that based upon the VE's testimony and considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff would be capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 22. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform work as an usher or as a parking lot attendant. Tr. 23. Therefore, the ALJ found Plaintiff was “not disabled.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to find Plaintiff's mental impairments to be severe; (2) improperly rejecting medical opinions; and (3) ...


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